From Inventor to Innovator
Thomas Edison was a legendary inventor. During his lifetime, he accrued 1,093 U.S. patents for his inventions (Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, 2014). His inventions varied from batteries to transmitters, and many of these inventions are still inspiring inventors today. However, Edison was more than an inventor. Thomas Edison was an innovator. An innovator develops new methods and shapes the way future inventors approach their work. Edison innovated the way that product testing and development is done. He was one of the first to use extensive laboratories for research and others have used his model. As he devel- oped new methods for inventing, he was always on the cutting edge of what was possible to invent. How was he able to push these technological limits to new heights? Thomas Edison became one of the most well-known inventors due to his ability to solve problems, collaborate, and persevere.
It is first important to recognize that Edison's innovation made him one of the most well-known inventors of his century. According to Josephson and Conot (n.d.), "When he died he was venerated and mourned as the man who, more than any other, had laid the basis for the technological and social revolution of the modern electric world" (para. 26). The basis he laid that he is most well-known for included his work in recording sound, generating electrically-powered light, and storing power in the form of a battery. Other inventions included a carbon-button transmitter for the telephone, a more efficient generator, and key elements of making motion pictures (Josephson & Conot, n.d.). All of his inventions when considered together represent a staggering amount of work and creativity.
A prime example of Edison's pioneering work was the first machine that could record sound. This machine, a phonograph, led to the other inventions that established the recording industry (Besonen, 2017). Prior to the invention of the phonograph, the human voice could not be transmitted electronically. Messages could be sent to other people by letter in the mail or by telegraph. A telegraph would electronically transmit a message that had to be decoded by a trained telegraph operator. Alexander Graham Bell invented a way to transmit voice via telephone, but the device was not sensitive enough to be practical (Rutgers, 2016). Edison did various experiments with sound before he found a way to improve the transmitter for the telephone, and in the process of his work with the telephone, he realized that he had discovered a way to record sound (Rutgers, 2016). This early invention made him a globally recognized inventor.
After he created the phonograph, Edison created the first practical electrically-powered light. Many people had been working with electric light, and some had found success, but none of the inventions could be sold to the public to provide light in homes using electricity (National Parks Service (NPS), 2017). Edison worked on this venture for over year before he developed a light bulb that was practical for home use (NPS, 2017). There were many failures along the way as Edison experimented with various types of filaments before he found one that worked. Edison's discovery with electric light may be one of his most widely recognized inventions.
The other invention for which Edison earned wide acclaim was the alkaline storage battery. Edison actually began work on the battery when he was developing the phonograph machine as a way to provide the machine with power (Josephson & Conot, n.d.). He began working on the battery again many years later with a new idea in mind: automobiles. Automobiles were powered by gasoline, steam, and lead-acid batteries, but Edison felt that these sources of power were inadequate and wanted to improve the automobile by inventing an alkaline battery (NPS, 2015). This invention took him long enough to develop that by the time the battery was ready to be used, gasoline had become the preferred method for powering cars (NPS, 2015). The work on the battery was not wasted, however. There were other applications that became very popular. Many people started using Edison's battery to give power to lamps and buoys and it became Edison's most profitable invention (NPS, 2015; Rutgers, 2016).
With the inventions of the phonograph, electric lights, and the alkaline battery, Edison clearly established himself as an innovator, but the inventions alone do not give sufficient insight into the reasons for his success. By looking more closely at Edison's creative process, it is possible to find these reasons.
One of the qualities that contributed to Edison's incredible success was his ability to identify and solve problems. Edison was an observer of the world around him, and when he saw a problem, he set to work to solve it. At first, the problems were personal limitations that he worked to solve. For example, Edison's partial deafness caused problems for him when he worked as a teenager. Edison worked as a telegraph operator, which required him to decode messages and transcribe them. He was able to do this job very well. However, as the technology improved, telegraphs started to be sent as sounds, which caused problems for Edison (Josephson & Conot, n.d.). In response to that problem, he started experimenting with ways to improve the telegraph and developed a stock ticker and a voting machine (Josephson & Conot, n.d.). Later, his inventions solved more general problems, like providing economic light solutions, and powering mobile devices with a battery.
Edison didn't work to solve these problems, alone, however, and his ability to collaborate with other people contributed to his success as an inventor. The electric light that was extremely successful was assisted by a Francis Upton, who had recently graduated from Princeton and brought a specific skill set that Edison didn't have in mathematics (Josephson & Conot, n.d.). By drawing upon the skills of others, Edison was able to find success that he may not have had if he had been working alone. Later, in the peak eras of his creative success, Edison worked on his inventions in two large facilities in New Jersey, where "[Edison] employed experts in teams, members of which possessed the multidisciplinary skills needed to develop specific new products" (Roman, 2016, p. 17). These teams supported Edison's work and were directed under his supervision. The inventions that were created in these facilities were evidence of the success of collaborative work.
Even with his great problem-solving ability and supportive teams, Edison would not have become such a successful inventor if he had not continued to work in the face of difficulty. Edison had many difficult circumstances during his lifetime as an inventor, both in his professional and personal life that could have compelled him to stop, but he kept working. One extremely difficult situation that Edison faced was losing half of his research facility (an estimated $23 million dollars in damages) to a fire in 1914 (Feloni, 2014). In the face of such devastation, Edison didn't quit. In fact, the very next morning, he began rebuilding the laboratories to continue his work (Feloni, 2014). In the face of what could have completely stopped his work as an inventor, Edison continued his work.
His tenacity, collaboration, and innovation led Thomas Edison to become a very successful inventor. The process he used for developing new products is used today, just as many of his inventions are still in use. His work and his example established a firm base for scientists and engineers to build upon. As we continue today to push the edges of what is possible to do with our technology, we will be successful by using the same principles that Edison used. We have to look for problems and try to find new ways to solve them. We need to learn how to blend the expertise and experience of a group together in order to accomplish more. We need to remember that as challenges come, success comes from being persistent. We need to do more than merely invent; we need to innovate.
Exercise 1: Analyze an essay
The following is an example of a formal descriptive essay. Although you will not write one this length, take a look at the whole essay to get a feel for the purpose and style.
- Does the introduction provide the general information a reader needs in order to understand the topic?
- Does the introduction end with an effective thesis? Does it match the style of the essay?
- Do each of the body paragraphs begin with an effective topic sentence?
- Are the body paragraphs sequenced in a logical order?
- Look at each body paragraph. Do the supporting sentences support the topic sentence?
- Look at each body paragraph. Are the supporting sentences sequenced in a logical order?
- Look at each body paragraph. Is there enough development? Are there more details or examples that would help the reader?
- Look at each body paragraph. Does the concluding sentence close the paragraph logically?
- Does the conclusion paragraph start by restating the thesis?
- Does the conclusion paragraph have a suggestion, prediction, or opinion at the end?
Besonen, J. (2017, March 8). In New Jersey, exploring the innovations of Thomas Edison. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/08/nyregion/in-new-jersey-exploring-the-innovations-of-thomas-edison.html?searchResultPosition=17
Feloni, R. (2014, May 9). Thomas Edison's reaction to his factory burning down shows why he was so successful. Business Insider. Retrieved from http:// www.businessinsider.com/thomas-edison-in-the-obstacle-is-the-way-2014-5
Josephson, M. & Conot, R. E. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britanica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Edison
National Parks Service, (2015). Edison biography. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/historyculture/edison-biography.htm
Roman, H. T. (2016). Thomas Edison as role model. Tech Directions, 75(5), 17-19.
Rutgers School of Arts of Sciences (2016). Detailed biography. Retrieved from https://edison.rutgers.edu/bio-long.htm